“The right has clearly learned how to deploy the language of values, while recognizing that we have entered an era where blatantly contradictory positions can be a strength rather than a weakness.”
“Indeed, what forces us at all to suppose that there is an essential opposition of ‘true’ and ‘false’? Is it not sufficient to assume degrees of apparentness and, as it were, lighter and darker shadows and shades of appearance- different ‘values’, to use the language of painters?”
Almost a century and a half ago, Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed that we were moving from a society that believed in truth, to one that adhered to values. Individuals, no longer able to articulate why they believed in this principle or that one, would gradually come to feel that the mere fact that they believed in a principle was sufficient to establish its credibility. Value talk, in other words, would come to take the place of discussions about moral truth and objectivity. He also felt that the advance of liberalism and new media, with the rights to free expression realizing itself in the advancement of a growing plurality of agendas, would only deepen this trend. We were moving from a world that believed in truth to one that believed in the values affiliated with our given identities. This is one characteristic of what I have elsewhere called the “post-modern epoch.”
Earlier in the 20th century, many progressives welcomed the emergence of this new post-modern era of values taking the place of truth. We felt that this ideological shift would open the space for new voices to participate in what were once monopolized civic conversations. Many felt that the belief in universal and timeless truths had led Western states to adeptly and dangerously arrogant policies, which they sought to export across the globe through militarism and imperialism. Better by far to drop such hubris and adopt a perspectival stance where each individual’s values and feelings were to be their own prerogative. Unfortunately, this often mutated into a simultaneous distrust of all opinions that didn’t gel with our own perspectives. Conservative and centrist thinkers who we didn’t approve of were scorned and turned away. Rather than learning from our political opponents, we chose to embrace only those who adhered to our own values. We self-righteously thought that by silencing those who sought to perpetuate the inequalities of the past that we could prevent new dangers from emerging in the future. This movement towards what has been vaguely caricatured as political correctness has had such disastrous and unexpected consequences for the movement of progress.
On Identity Politics
As Slavoj Zizek and others have pointed out, progressives did not recognize the close alignment between identity politics and the value talk affiliated with the post-modern epoch. While there will always be a need to engage in intersectional analysis to understand the myriad ways through which inequality has been perpetuated, identity politics in its post-modern iteration went beyond such prudent holism. Instead, the discourse of identity became the sole moral locus for making political demands. This myopic focus on one’s own historically-constituted subjectivity and what Wendy Brown called its “wounded attachments” created fertile ground for a conservative reaction, which agreed that culture and history were the sole basis on which to construct moral and political opinions. While the left attempted to orient this focus in an emancipatory direction, what we have learned is that the conservativism has adapted, far more effectively and with greater enthusiasm, to our new post-modern reality than we ever have.
In an irony that would have made Nietzsche red in the face; jingoistic pundits and far right-wing media brewed an always toxic mix of American exceptionalism and evangelism with the hip and very post-modern language of values. They condemned those who felt differently than they did as “liberals,” who held to un-American viewpoints, such as believing in free trade and robust immigration. They took a universalist religious doctrine formulated by a poor Jewish carpenter, stressing the non-violent forgiveness of sins and support for the poor, and transformed it into a discourse of retribution and paranoia condemning criminals and Muslims. That there were insolvable theoretical tensions in these positions was ignored or papered over by ideologically loaded appeals to “common sense” and a crude belief that all “individuals” had to take care of themselves.
In foreign policy, they demanded a return to promoting Western values, without ever recognizing that the very language invoked undermined the commitments to truth and universality they claimed to respect. For a long while, these tendencies bubbled beneath the surface of American right-wing discourse, finding expression in more radicalized media such as conservative radio, Fox News and its shrill hyperbole about the decline of traditional values, and, of course, new and emerging media such as the internet. For a long time, these tendencies were ignored by status Republicans who took advantage of them to achieve electoral success, while attempting to water down their radical dimensions. Now, with the rise and emergence of post-modern conservatism across the Western world, we have seen what a Faustian bargain this has turned out to be. The full contradictions and tensions inherent within these far-right media outlets are now given expression in the most vulgar politics to have emerged in some time.
Value Talk and Post-Modern Conservatism
Nowhere were these tensions and contradictions better embodied than in the figure of the new President. Donald Trump is the post-modern conservative par excellence. A man who claims to be a tough straight talker, but is seemingly incapable of telling the truth. A man who used his wealth to avoid serving his country in wartime, but then condemns a veteran for being captured and tortured. A billionaire who claims to speak for the revolutionary working class, but who has used every opportunity available to him to exploit cheap labor and avoid paying taxes for vital public services. He claims to have attended the best schools, but he cannot even recall where America is at war at any given moment. He is someone who defends his temperament as above reproach, but he takes advantage of new technologies to lash out at his real and perceived enemies for the pettiest reasons. He has spent his life working for only for himself, but he condemns immigrants—legal or otherwise—who come to the country seeking to improve their lot. All of this was ignored by voters whose values he claimed to embody better than anyone else.
Trump’s success in allaying and even taking advantage of these contradictions attest to the material dimension of our new value-saturated society. In 1996, the French social theorist Jean Baudrillard claimed that the universal perished in globalization. What he meant was that truth itself was falling before the relentless emergence of a post-modern epoch where symbols and identifiers took the place of substance and authentic commitments. His prediction at the time was revelatory. But we now need to update it with the realization that the economic and political push globalization, once a banner project of the right, has been abetted with the emergence of the post-modern epoch.
One of the most prominent reasons for this has been the relentless development of new technological apparatuses and communication media. Far from bringing about a new —as Baudrillard might have observed—such pretensions at universality faded before the amenability of digital media to the symbolism and identity politics affiliated with value talk. The Internet, and its politics of division and immediate incitement, has pushed aside the once hegemonic media holding up the established neo-liberal order. One of the ways post-modern conservatives have been successful in this kind of hyper-real and ultra-rapid politics is through successfully deploying the language of “values” as a way to mobilize their base and attract political attention. Sometimes the values invoked are those of Western civilization. Sometimes it is the values of the authentic American people, which of course does not include Americans who disagree with the position of post-modern conservatives. Sometimes they are specifically right-wing interpretations of “Judeo-Christian values.” Often, though, these are all invoked together, without much attention paid to the fact that Western values may not be reducible to American values, and that the United States may not, in fact, be a particularly good representation of a Christian country. What remains constant is the invocation of values as a source for political differentiation and to criticize opponents of the post-modern conservative worldview.
The fact that “values” are invoked by post-modern conservatives is not a coincidence. Value talk is a natural fit for a technological era in which immediacy—and what Virillio calls a politics of speed—takes the place of reflection and deep political commitments. What makes discussion of values so amenable to what I have called the post-modern epoch is that discussing one’s values requires only identity, rather than judgment or reflection. When a post-modern conservative invokes his “values,” he is not primarily appealing to the objectivity or logical consistency of those values as a reason to accept them. Instead, post-modern conservatives invoke these values because they are affiliated with the given group which they identify with. It is the relationship of those values with identity that gives them salience. Post-modern conservatives, therefore, believe these values should be accepted and entrenched in order to amplify the political and cultural clout of the given social identity they affiliate with.
Value talk fits in usefully with the post-modern conservative worldview, which emphasizes the need to retrench the authority of traditionally powerful identities above all other political programs. Value talk is a shorthand way of expressing the sense that power dynamics have shifted, and that immigrants, academic and cultural elites, and so-called globalists now set the political and cultural agenda at the expense of the “ordinary,” people who are entitled to have their values expressed above all others. The contradiction inherent in these doctrines is never fully recognized. As ideological products of the given epoch, post-modern conservatives long to go back to a time when their “values” were the only ones that held significant cultural and political currency. They do not recognize that even invoking “values” and “identity” with such vigor is characteristic of the post-modern epoch of which they are a part. It, therefore, serves not to return to an earlier, simpler time, but to entrench the very tendencies that post-modern conservatives claim they wish to push against.
This contradiction may prove fatal to the objectives of post-modern conservatives in the long run. But it certainly has not impeded their progress in the short-term. In the post-modern epoch, as Nietzsche rightfully predicted, value talk holds tremendous ideological and political currency. The right has clearly learned how to deploy the language of values, while recognizing that we have entered an era where blatantly contradictory positions can be a strength rather than a weakness.
The only way for progressives to respond is to refuse to play the game of competing values. We need to rediscover a new core set of convictions that can both inspire people and whose worth goes beyond simple appeals to our preferences. In other words, we need to start boldly calling for measures that we can demonstrate will make the underprivileged better off—and our society, as a whole, more just. This means making very concrete proposals on what we want to achieve and drawing from undoctrinaire sources where we must. One proposal, debated around the globe and supported by notable anthropologists working in developing countries, would be for a universal living wage paid out to all but retained primarily by the poor. We should also stop deploying the language of values and preferences in favor of a more consistent and integrity oriented demand for justice. If we rely on value talk, we only feed into a culture, which the right has manipulated with far greater acumen and cunning. But such piecemeal steps can only take us so far. What is required now is a movement towards more constructive and bold thought on the needs of the future.
Matt McManus recently completed his PhD in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. Matt can be reached at email@example.com.